Summer music and dance festivals usually attract thousands of visitors and are a boon for Lebanon's trademark tourist industry but in past years they often had to be cancelled because of wars and political crises. Lebanon hosts three prestigious festivals which overlap from June to the end of August. "These festivals are a tradition -- Baalbek is still there, against all odds," said Leila Bsat of the Baalbek International Festival, which was halted during the 1975-1990 civil war. The Baalbek International Festival, which was officially launched in 1956 and is the oldest in the Middle East, runs from July 4 to August 13 and is held in the shadows of spectacular Roman temples. The Bejart Ballet of Lausanne will kick off the festival with a tribute to the late choreographer Maurice Bejart, while Deep Purple will play Baalbek on July 25. Vacationers in Lebanon make up a large number of concert-goers and officials foresee a boom in tourism after a year of relative calm that culminated in a general election on June 7. "There is a big difference this year and there are a lot of tourists coming in, first and foremost expatriates," Bsat told AFP. Lebanon is also a popular destination for Arabs from oil-rich Gulf countries in summer. "Last year, the May events hampered the summer season and the festivals, so some bands didn't want to come to Beirut," Bsat said. Tourism in Lebanon had taken a beating in recent years after a string of political assassinations following a Beirut bomb blast that killed ex-premier Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. In 2006, many festivals were called off due to the devastating July-August war between Israel and Hezbollah and again in 2007 over the protracted political crisis and a deadly standoff between the army and Islamist militiamen in a Palestinian refugee camp. Sectarian violence in May 2008 left more than 100 people dead and brought the country close to another civil war before tempers cooled and foreign mediation brought about a degree of stability. But the shows have reclaimed their original popularity this year, organisers say.
Demand is especially high for performers like French crooner Charles Aznavour, whose Armenian roots strike a chord with Lebanon's large Armenian community, and Gabriel Yared, the Oscar-winning composer of Lebanese origin. "Aznavour is fully booked," said Wafa Saab of the Beiteddine Festival's executive committee. "And it's a premier for Yared in Lebanon, where he is going to play the piano." The Beiteddine Festival, from July 2 to August 15, is held in a palatial 19th century residence in the Shouf mountains, an area of green hills and traditional villages southeast of Beirut which is popular with tourists. "It's even better than last year," Saab told AFP. "In fact, it may well be the best season since 2003." Tourism made a dramatic recovery in 2008 with the arrival of 1.3 million visitors to the Mediterranean country and officials hope Lebanon will woo two million tourists by the end of 2009. Arab artists who will perform at the festivals include Iraqi crooner Kazem Saher, the Lebanese dance troupe Caracalla and the Palestine Youth Orchestra. There will also be tributes to the late Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum and to the late Lebanese composer Mansur Rahbani, who left his stamp on scores of enduring songs and musicals.